Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: Evolution: A View From the 21st Century

This was like going to a scientific seminar with a high-profile speaker that you knew was going to be good, and when it was over you realize it was REALLY good. (If you've never experienced that, it's one of the consolations for years of Ph.D. study, and it's a nice feeling.) James A. Shapiro wrote this book to argue that evolutionary change is not only much less gradual than many biology textbooks insist, but it's also directed by the cell and therefore has the hallmarks of intentional engineering. I am most excited about Shapiro's willingness to re-introduce teleology into evolution, and there are many threads and references he drops off that I will follow up for my own chemistry-based angle. I have a few comments, not even really criticisms: basically he ends up downplaying the single-mutation mechanisms to the point that the general reader may not even know that those exist, and he spends so much time away from the protein level that he neglects a few examples that sort of coincide with his thesis but involve the dreaded single-mutation type change (in particular, I'm thinking of Susan Lindquist's work on the way heat-shock proteins can "buffer" destabilizing mutations during normal times, allowing for more rapid change in times of stress -- if this was among the 1000+ references, I didn't see it). But honestly, this book is not for the general reader, even though Shapiro makes some faint stabs in that direction. You really need a master's degree in a related field to read this book. But I've seen biology slowly moving in Shapiro's direction, especially with the observed large changes of DNA that are not small or incremental. Another minor quibble is that he insists on going after Darwin as being wrong, when Darwin's mistakes were perfectly understandable, and, like a blurb on the back says, Darwin would have been excited by this book. It's not about Darwin, it's about role of randomness and a possible role for intentionality (and therefore order). It's about whether biology is just a branch of thermodynamics or if there might be something more to it. And it's exciting to have all of this evidence in one place, especially for a chemist like me who didn't know, for example, how plant biologists make new species (by hybridization, not small incremental change). Shapiro is definitely onto something here, and I look forward to seeing this story continue to unfold. By the way, this book is all the things The Signature of the Cell wanted to be but wasn't -- including right.

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